By Guest Blogger Cynthia R. Mahan, CCLS, Manager, Child Life Department, Brenner Children’s Hospital

Whether planned or unplanned, hospitalization can be a stressful experience for a child and his or her family. It often includes different routines, possible food or activity restrictions, a different bed and surroundings, unfamiliar words, contact with many new people, and many tests and procedures. Needless to say, it can be scary for both children and parents. That’s why Child Life is needed. We serve patients and families by normalizing the environment, providing support and education about the hospital and procedures, and advocating for patients and families.

Considering those patient care goals, here are some of the key services the Child Life department at Brenner Children’s Hospital provides:

  • Normalizing the hospital environment—We offer developmentally appropriate playrooms and a teen room. We also provide special events, and help families celebrate holidays and birthdays as a child would normally experience them at home or school.
  • Educating and supporting—We provide developmentally appropriate, multisensory preparation and coping skills for procedures and surgery. We also offer support to parents, knowing that by decreasing a parent’s anxiety we can decrease the child’s anxiety. The stress-point supportive care we teach role models what the child and parent can do in other stressful situations. It teaches them that they can face stressful situations and be successful.

My Life with Child Life

I have seen the value in these techniques up close—not only as a Child Life specialist, but also as a parent when my own child was a patient at Brenner.

My second son was a 1lb.,4 oz. preemie who stayed in the Brenner NICU for 2 1/2 months. He is now 20 years old and a junior in college. During those early months, I learned firsthand what it’s like to be the parent of a hospitalized child in an intensive care unit. Throughout my career, I have taken the things I learned from that experience, and I have shared them with our patients, families and staff. It has also helped me constantly assess what we can do to support and improve our patient and family experiences.

I’ve learned a lot on the job, too. Child Life is a job of service and compassion, and in my 39 years as a Child Life Specialist at Brenner, I’ve learned so much from the families who’ve walked through our doors. They’re our partners in the care of their children. They know them best, so we need to make sure we are listening. I’ve learned about different cultures, and that families come in all shapes and sizes, and extend even beyond the biological family unit. I’ve also seen families face very difficult circumstances, and I have learned the power of walking along someone on a difficult journey—and the importance of just being there when everything can’t be fixed.

In addition to the privilege of getting to know families, I have gotten to know our community. Our department is fortunate to receive all kinds of donations from individuals, families and groups that support the work we do. Donated funds give us the ability to purchase specific items as needs arise. Whether there is a need we want to provide for a specific patient, an item that will benefit all patients or the planning of memorable activities, donated funds provide us with invaluable flexibility. In addition, donated items help to support our playrooms, teen room, holiday and birthday events, and bedside services. We have a very generous community, and we’re so appreciative. Child Life could not provide all that it does without the support of others.

Holiday Events at Brenner

In addition to our regular work in Child Life, the months of November and December are very busy for us as we focus on old and new holiday traditions, including:

  • Christmas trees on every unit, thanks to the Friends of Brenner Children’s Hospital Deck the Halls Committee and talented decorators throughout the community.
  • Santa visits three times, and one visit includes an opportunity for patients to have their pictures made with Santa in a restored sleigh provided by
  • The visit of a Star Wars group officially sanctioned by Disney, which will coincide with the release of the new Star Wars movie.
  • The making of Christmas bags that are delivered to patient rooms on Christmas morning. Through generous donations from our community, we fill large, red, laundry-sized bags with age- and gender-specific gifts for every patient and sibling.

To learn more about the services Child Life offers to Brenner Children’s Hospital patients and families, visit

*Sponsored by Brenner Children’s Hospital